Every Wednesday, the Watson Lake Signpost Seniors serve lunch to members and friends.
It’s generally a sizeable crowd for a town this size; they serve up to 40 lunches each week.
The food is ‘Mom food’: hearty, delicious and comforting. After lunch there are card games or shuffleboard or sitting around with a cup of tea and visiting.
This effort is fueled by volunteers, few in number but loyal to their purpose. And among them is Pat Cruickshanks, apron-clad, busy in the kitchen before the luncheon and busy in the kitchen cleaning up afterwards.
“I don’t have anything to say,” she said, when asked for an interview. “I’m not very interesting.”
But, eventually, she relented. Everyone, it seems, has story—even if they don’t know it.
Pat arrived in Watson Lake 42 years ago, driving the Alaska Highway in January with her husband and two young daughters.
Winter was not a new experience. She’d grown up in Winnipeg. But the emptiness of the Yukon landscape gave the young woman some chills.
Gordon Edlund, her husband, had been posted to Watson Lake by his employer CN (now Northwestel) and, unlike many families coming to the North in those years, at least they had a house when they arrived.
Pat found friends immediately in the CN ‘camp’ and soon realized the community was equally welcoming.
The family settled in easily. Four years after their arrival, another daughter was born. Pat was happy to be able to stay home with them while Gordon worked.
“It was a good place for us. We bought one of the first snowmobiles when they came out and we did a lot of snowmobiling. It seemed the winters were colder then, but we were younger and we went out in all weather.
“And we curled. Gordon and I went to all the northern bonspiels, like in Teslin, Cantung, Cassiar and Whitehorse. The girls skied and curled; their teachers from school were their instructors, too. The schools were good; my girls did fine in school.
“In those days the teachers were very much a part of the whole community, involved in everything, as were the RCMP. I remember teachers and cops playing baseball and being at parties and dinners with the rest of us. Very different from the way it is now.”
In the summer there were ball games to play. The family did a lot of camping together. They got a boat; nearly every summer Sunday found Gordon out fishing with the girls. Simpson Lake on the Robert Campbell Highway was a favourite spot.
“He grew up with a father who didn’t spend any time with him and he always said he would not be like that with his kids.” Pat says. “He spent a lot of time with our girls.”
In 1976, Gordon was out hunting with his friend Bill Berg. The men were sleeping in their van when the catalytic heater malfunctioned during the night. They never woke up.
The Edlund girls were 14, 12, and six. Their mother was in shock.
CN told her they had two months to vacate their house, that would put the new widow and her children out in December.
Pat’s first thought was to leave town, but she was able to quickly get into low-cost housing, and the Watson Lake Hotel gave her a job.
The town was enjoying a boom time then; the hotel was busy.
“The people working at the hotel were a really capable and good bunch,” Pat says. “Everyone knew what they were doing; the food and the service were good—it made the job easier. I was able to be home when the girls were out of school, and the people I worked with were my friends, too; we’d get together to play cards, or go to the Venture for a beer. It was a tough time for awhile, but we did all right eventually.”
When her youngest daughter was still living at home, Pat met Terry Cruickshanks. They married in 1982.
Ten years later, Pat was working at the post office and Terry at the liquor store when he had his first heart attack.
He quit the liquor store and went to work at the recreation centre. But that job, too, was simply too physical for his weakening heart.
In 2004, he had an emergency triple bypass and his working days were over.
Pat retired from the post office and now the two of them enjoy their friends and their home. They do some travelling in their motorhome; they go camping and boating in the summer.
Their shih tzu, Gypsy, is a source of great pleasure to the couple.
They had decided against getting any more pets, but then they went to look at a litter of pups … Pat walks the dog every night.
“There’s something about walking with a dog that is so much better than walking alone; their enjoyment is so obvious.”
While life is generally pleasant, there are annoyances.
“I don’t like people being late for meetings and events. I don’t buy this ‘Yukon time’ thing—late is late.
“And I am really annoyed that Yukon Order of Pioneers won’t allow women to be members. Women were pioneers, too, and contributed every bit as much as men did to building the North. And I don’t think we should be ‘associates’; we ought to be full members.”
But this couple isn’t retiring anywhere else; life in Watson Lake has everything they need.
Pat is a regular volunteer at the Signpost Seniors, but she also makes lap quilts for the University hospital in Edmonton.
“It’s a way of saying thank you; they were good to Terry when he was a patient there. And I like helping people out if I can; I don’t like seeing people down.”
When asked what Terry is doing with his retirement, Pat laughs.
“It’s hard to believe, but he has taken up cooking and baking. He goes on the internet for recipes. We have dinners like prime rib, with a cherry cheesecake for dessert. And he goes for presentation as much as taste; the plates are always arranged and garnished. He even does the cleanup. I cut and haul our wood.
“He calls me Mrs. Paul Bunyan.”
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer
who lives in Watson Lake.